I recently read an excellent op-ed by Adam Gelb, president and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice. The op-ed, published in USA Today, is called “Why Reducing Violence is Essential For Prison Reform Work. The piece caught my eye because in the world of criminal justice reform, I hear much more about prison reform than I do about public safety. Here was a perspective that addressed both, without minimizing the issues in either realm.
But I had some questions for the author, and also wanted to get another perspective from someone who is on the ground, working closely with families directly impacted by both the violence and the weaknesses of our existing approach to imprisonment. Kevin Ring, the president of FAMM, was just the person to ask.
Here are Adam’s and Kevin’s thoughts on the balance between reducing violence and prison reform, how we address violence today and the specific efforts we might consider supporting in areas experiencing heightened violence.
Question: One of the article’s main points is that if we focus criminal justice reform efforts solely on reducing length of prison sentences and rate of incarceration, we are ignoring valid public safety concerns about how to reduce violence—which is increasing in terms of crime—and failing to address the root causes leading to those increases. In your view, how should we think about the relationship between violent crime and punishment?
Adam Gelb: I think the most common view is that the relationship is simple and moves in one direction: if you apply more punishment, you get less violent crime. The reality is much more complicated, partly because some violence happens in the heat of passion and without regard to potential penalties, and partly because some violence is the business model of organized crime groups and when employees are caught and imprisoned, they are quickly replaced by new recruits. So, when we lock people up for long periods, we should acknowledge that we’re doing it for purposes of punishment and not claim that it’s going to take a big bite out of crime.
But as you say, a key point of the article is that we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the relationship moves in the other direction as well: that when there’s more violent crime, the total amount of punishment rises. If we want to reduce incarceration and racial disparities, then we have to reduce violence. Even though the murder rate is far below where it was a quarter-century ago, we can’t simply accept the current level of violence and focus exclusively on shortening sentences.
Kevin Ring: We should listen to those with legitimate fears about public safety and not use historical context, important though it may be, to belittle them. A young mother and father worried about their child being killed by a stray bullet will not find comfort in the fact that the violent crime rate was much higher before they were born. Criminal justice reformers who share a concern for safe streets and neighborhoods should make sure those values are clearly expressed in their work, and do what they can to ensure everyone understands the evidence that shows our over-reliance on lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms is making us less safe, among other ways, by wasting resources that could be invested in other strategies that could prevent violent crime.
Question: Another point made in the article is: “The good news is that we know a lot more today about how to control violent crime than we did at the start of the prison-building boom in the 1970s.” What do we know and what do we still need to figure out?
Adam Gelb: When I started my career as a police reporter in Atlanta in the 1980s, there was basically one strategy. It was called the Red Dog Unit. Unmarked cars filled with four or five officers in military garb would cruise around looking for street drug dealers, screech to a halt, jump out and chase them down. It was very successful in locking up a bunch of people; [but in] reducing violence, not so much.
Today, a few key principles characterize effective interventions, and they have been articulated well by my CCJ colleague Thomas Abt in his book, “Bleeding Out.” They are: focus, directing resources toward the small share of people and places where violence concentrates; balance, between enforcement and prevention strategies that offer meaningful opportunities to step away from gangs and avoid arrest and prosecution; and trust, building bridges between police and communities and engaging residents in discussions about priorities, policies and programs.
I’m careful to avoid saying that we have “solutions” but when you combine those approaches, you can make a big difference, reducing shootings by 25% or more. Results like that would be heralded as triumphs in other fields, like education. When it comes to public safety, though, lives are on the line, so the stakes are higher and the tolerance for failure much, much lower.
Kevin Ring: We know that a relatively small number of people in a small number of places commit most serious violent crimes. We know that targeting those people and places with resources, including everything from policing to counseling to public services, can reduce crime. We have learned more about the specific interventions and services that work, while recognizing that different communities have different needs. Finally, we know from the age-crime curve that public safety doesn’t require us to incarcerate people who commit violent crimes (for) as long as we do.
Despite all we’ve learned, there is so much we don’t know. Just consider the recent spike in shootings and murders, the fact that no one saw them coming, and the fact that we don’t really know what caused them. Some humility is in order. Finally, while we may know more about violent crime, we still have a challenge to get the public and elected leaders to follow the evidence to different policy solutions.
Question: Where is the violence happening, and what are more specific efforts we should support in those places?
Adam Gelb: Street violence is heavily concentrated in disadvantaged communities, and in specific locations within them—street corners, liquor and convenience stores, nightclubs. During the pandemic, there’s been a rise in domestic violence as well and some indications that it’s happening in households without a prior history of it. The pandemic also seems to have people on a short fuse: arguments over minor issues end in gunfire, and sometimes innocent bystanders being shot.
The distinct types of violence require different strategies. Stronger education and greater economic opportunities are long-term responses to urban violence but in the short-term, we can have an impact with strategies like focused deterrence—the carrot and stick approach described above—and cognitive behavioral treatment that can help people diffuse anger. People involved in violence need to hear from outreach workers (credible messengers with their own life experience) at strategic moments (such as at the hospital when they’re recovering from a shooting) about practical, realistic steps they can take to avoid another cycle of retaliation and turn their lives around.
This work must be accomplished locally, led by mayors, police chiefs and community members, but the new administration in Washington can do much more at the federal level to support the local efforts that research says will save the most lives.
Kevin Ring: I am not a criminologist or an authority on which anti-violence programs have been the most successful. I do know that most violent crime occurs in a small number of blocks in our nation’s cities, and we have a moral duty to address it. We should go on offense with strategies and tactics that work. We should not offer community-based, non-incarceration alternatives to violent crime only when shooting and murder rates are soaring, and we are feeling defensive. Our proposals for reducing violence should not be Plan B.
We should challenge lawmakers to invest heavily in violence prevention programs and pay for them, at least in part, with the savings accrued from reducing unnecessary incarceration. Doing so would help us to avoid minimizing legitimate fears about safety and allow us, instead, to channel those concerns into supporting smart and just outcomes.
Editor’s note: Debi Ghate serves on the board of directors of FAMM.